Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Agamben 2 (week 6)


  1. I have a number of incomplete thoughts re: the discussion of St. Paul which Agamben refers to. Agamben invokes Paul for his unique and influential take on the law and the fulfillment of the law. Certainly, Paul has been the foremost interpreter of Jesus and his relation to the Mosaic Law for Christianity. The first place Paul shows up--though in this case, it is not explicit--is in the discussion of Benjamin's statement that "the Scripture without the key is not Scripture, but life." Agamben uses this statement to bring out a question central to Christian (read: Pauline) theology: "What becomes of the law after its messianic fulfillment?" (63)

    As Roland mentioned in last class, Jesus is purported to have said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill." (Matt. 5:17) It is important to note here that Jesus is referring to a specific law -- the Mosaic Law of the Torah. This "fulfillment" of the law in the life of Christ has been interpreted variously by different Christian sects, but we might turn for some clarification to the passage in Paul's letter to the Romans, to which Agamben refers later (71): "But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets..." (Rom. 3:21). Paul goes on to say that the righteousness of God is disclosed through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

    So Paul distinguishes then between righteousness and the law. And the interpretation of this with which I am most familiar is one which relies on the metaphor of legal guilt and innocence. In this reading, Jesus fulfills the law by making it no longer necessary -- the law prescribed actions which were needed to atone for guilt, but Jesus offers forgiveness, "justification" through faith (again a legal term). By receiving the legal ascription of righteousness, the formerly guilty human is no longer subject to the punishment of the sovereign (God). In this reading, the "righteousness of God" is equivalent to his justice, his following of the law (which, as it happens, he created), and it is then necessarily “attested to by the law and the prophets.”

  2. But the idea of a "living law" as opposed to a written law, as Agamben discusses, is interesting for a different reading. I can’t remember if this idea shows up in Paul or not, but I’ve heard Jesus described as the "living Torah" -- this comes from the Gospel of John in which he is described as the "'logos' made flesh," and the logos (word) is taken to be an equivalent of the the spiritual meaning of the Hebrew "torah" (law). Where for Agamben's analysis of the law under facist rulers (Hitler, Mussolini), the written law (i.e. the constitution or formal legal code) preexists the living law (i.e. the decisions of the fascist ruler); for this interpretation of Christian theology, the living law preexists the written law ("In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God." [John 1:1]) and the written law then is the articulation of the inarticulable living law. Then the incarnation is the embodiment of the law's inarticulate aspect (insofar as a person cannot be articulated).

    Following this reading, we could say that the Christian law is then really an ethic following the example of Jesus in whom the Law is inarticulable (without a key) and has therefore come to be indistinguishable from life. The law is no longer necessary, not because we may be granted pardon, but because it has become a way of life. As is stated in Jeremiah's prophecy: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts... for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD" (Jer. 31:33-34). This gestures toward a new sort of human community on Earth, in which all become "living laws" but in which no one is sovereign (except perhaps the interpreters and inevitable codifiers of the ethic.)

  3. In trying to make sense of Agamben—which is always been tough for me—I’d sum this text up as an attempt to unravel the tight connection between a period of uproar—a war (foreign or civil)—and the suspension of law altogether. What this text made more apparent, to me at least, is concrete examples of how this suspension of law can become the norm. The first part of the book provides case studies of democratic countries getting rid of the restrictions that are normally imposed on the executive. Many of the examples revolve around world war one. Agamben argues that this isn’t really a ‘suspension’ of the law. A suspension would imply that once the war, or civil unrest, is over, then the normal situation of law will return. The executive would no longer have expanded powers and citizens have their full rights again. However, the person occupying the sovereign appears to have obtained greater powers in realms that do not include the above mentioned situations of war (13). Agamben mentions how executives expand their powers in order to deal with other situations that can be described as ‘exceptional’, or as not fitting the norm.
    Whether this is about a war, an economic crisis, or another crisis, Agamben points out, these sovereign decisions are always subjective decision (30). In this sense, Agamben’s text appears to have great explanatory power in our contemporary world. Not only because of the obvious example of the war on terror, but also because of the frequent usage of the term ‘crisis’. The other day, I quickly glanced at the headlines and saw an article about the crisis of mental health the U.S. is currently in.
    Thinking about these increasing number of crisis and how they fall outside the norm, I can’t help but note urban population growth. Since I am teaching an urban studies course this semester, I happen to have a few figures on hand. For the Western world: the 14th - 15th century was only 3-4% urban; 16th thru mid 18th century was 9-12% urban. Meanwhile, the 19th century saw its urban population triple. The U.S. crossed the 50% threshold in 1920. The so-called less developed regions of the world became urban much later. In 1950, these countries were 18% urban, but reached 40% urban in the year 2000 (Monti, Borer, Macgregor, 2015).
    Many of the urban theorists of the 19th and early 20th were making simplistic binaries about the urban world being a loss of traditional, family, and community ties to a more complex, contractual form of relating to the people and environment (Durkheim, who is mentioned by Agamben (66-67), was one these early urban writers). Many of these early writings offer useful insights but I always found Foucault as being able to explain the intensity of the discipline and population management needed for the remarkable increase in the population that the world was experiencing. The examples Agamben notes regarding WWI were occurring right around the time that many countries were crossing the 50% urban population threshold. Perhaps the triangle of power—sovereign, discipline, governmentally—are all needed to ‘arrest’ (HS, 92) or capture life (SOE, 88) in its urban form.

  4. After last week’s discussion I have been thinking about the figure of Edward Snowden as (maybe) an example of homo sacer. Snowden, at this point is living in asylum having escaped the United States after being charged with espionage. Snowden exists as an exile in Russia – he lives without the rights guaranteed by the United States government because that’s whom he is hiding from and does not hold the rights of a Russian citizen because he is not a citizen of Russia. Snowden exists in a state of lawlessness but is still dictated by the law as it is the law that stops him from coming back to the United States. Snowden is still a vocal and very public figure – he is active on the Internet and uses the Internet to vocalize his opinions about the United States government. Snowden’s current use of the Internet to express some sort of version of free speech in addition to the charges against him – the copying and release of private government documents via the use of the Internet – I think force a question we have talked about i.e. what do we do with the Internet and cyberspace?
    In the case of Edward Snowden, the Internet has acted as the means by which he is able to put the United States on trial – speaking out against what he perceives as unconstitutional acts by the United States government. In this way, Snowden is utilizing the space of the Internet to draw light to the state of exception (theoretically brought on by the ‘War on Terror’) that allowed him to be charged with espionage. However, because of things like copyright violation, piracy, illegal trade (as seen with Silk Road), pornography and the multitude of other illegal things that can be done/acquired/seen on the Internet it seems that the Internet itself is sort of a state of exception. I guess then is how does the Internet, as an exercise in the state of exception, effect the juridico political order of not only the United States government but everywhere in the world?

  5. I apologize if this gets hyperbolic. I'm still kind of brainstorming, throwing out thoughts I want to continue thinking about.

    I am trying to think about Poverty in the United States as a permanent state of exception. Poverty, along with race, has already been statistically proven time and again to affect the way a life is lived. The amount of attention you get from the police, the harsher sentencing you get for the same crimes that white rich people are more often let off with a slap on the wrist or nothing at all for, food deserts (the access you have to healthy food), the amount of crime and violence that the police will ‘tolerate’ within your neighborhood without doing anything about, the changing of voter registration laws to keep you or your family members from voting, the quality of your local public school and the expectations it has for your future, the way bill collectors hound you because they assume you don’t know your rights, the increased call to place restrictions on the way you can get food stamps (like drug testing), the medieval restrictions surrounding public housing (like never re-admitting a family member who has been in prison), the ability and willingness of the state (through a private company!) to take away your children, the lack of access to helpful drug treatment programs, and on and on.

    If there was ever a gap or a separate set of rules in the U.S., it seems to exist in this space, where poor black kids are being murdered by cops or citizens and those murderers are more often than not walking free. There is a clear sectioning off of cities according to race and income, and in those neighborhoods either a whole new set of rules apply, or no rules apply until the police swoop in and make up the rules on the spot. It goes without saying that you don’t have money yourself to hire a lawyer to take any kind of preventative action. The only way you get a lawyer is if you are accused of a crime, and that lawyer is appointed to you, and there’s no way to be sure they have your best interests at heart. The only thing you can be sure of is that they are probably extremely tired and overworked.

    Trying to search out where we are slipping into this state of exception, two areas seem clear: Judges and the police. Both of these entities are making life-changing decisions on a daily basis for people who have very few options other than the life and area they were born into. A combination of factors has normalized these situations (including our basic fears and prejudices), and no one truly believes that a huge positive shift out of this type of life is forthcoming any time soon. If anything, we are seeing the middle class slide further down toward this state of exception, which, if you’re an optimist, you might point out that there could be a tipping point—that when a majority of people are living in these conditions, our elected officials will have to take some concrete actions to begin to change things. I tend to think it will take even more than that, but I’m not sure what.

  6. It seems Agamben is exceptionally generous when it comes to the role of rhetoric and political myth in the State of Exception. In my mind, it seems political myth (ideology, whatever word you want to use) is the “essential fiction” that sustains the split between the law and life. It is this ideology or fiction that becomes “a figure of law’s immanence to life" (84), like the calling forth of a mythical (“pure”) return to ancient racial purity in Nazism. If “law and life must be tightly implicated in a reciprocal grounding,” the mythic and rhetoric may be the means of that grounding—or the justification for its changing relations. Indeed, myths build worlds, are highly flexible, and are just illusive enough to sustain justifications for power.

    One place this is salient is the U.S. presidential rhetoric to declare a “War on _______”—poverty, drugs (woof), terror (okay, more war-related but still), etc. Though not always used in this way, more often than not the phrase “War on ______” is a dog-whistle for unilateral executive action, a further grabbing or justification within the State of Exception. By declaring War, we get this mixture of the martial law, civil unrest, and holiday that Agamben traces throughout the book. By creating “a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible” (22), “the metaphor of war becomes an integral part of the presidential political vocabulary whenever decisions considered to be of vital importance are being imposed” (21). In political communication & presidential speech analysis (gross—I know), Campbell & Hall Jamieson in their book Deeds Done In Words literally list lying as a component of the “declaration of war” genre of speech. Agamben’s attention to the State of Exception gives a richer texture to this observation, as a structuring mechanism for a zone of indistinction. I don't know why this didn't hit me in a clearer way before?

    So often (in communication studies, at least), we think of myth as religious & kind of played out, but I'm feeling the love between Agamben & this area of study.

  7. Ramblings.

    Here, Agamben links the state of exception explicitly with language. First, all of the linguistic analogies coming out during the top of the book indicate a structural similarity, which turns to the central issue in Chapter 4, which turns on 59 and 60.

    First, the dispute between the inclusion of the State of exception in the legal order of severing its relation is made analogous with the relation between language and pure being: the relation of the being to language. Or, “That is to say, everything happens as if both law and logos needed an anomic (or a logical) zone of suspension in order to ground their reference to the world of life” (p. 60). Here, law and language enter into a shared structure rooted in the state of exception.

    Here, the zone blurring of boundaries discussed through out, the division of law and act (and the discussion of praxis through) seems to link the question with regard to language to potentiality, which is ties to the question of the will, which it seems (following the discussion of the decision, Agamben must, at some point, attend to this).

    If this is the case, language seems to capture, analogously to the mode of the states capture, bare life. Here, Agamben reveals the two pulls of his project. The question of the state concerns the political technique captures bare life. This is aligned with the technology of the self, where the individual captures his/her own bare life through language. The hidden point where these two points intersect is, according to Agamben, the exception [as an aside, I think that Agamben is wrong here, but am still slogging through the argument—Better, I think that Agamben discovers his error and corrects it late in the project, but I am still a thousand pages from being able to prove that second claim].

    Through the logic of the exception, which forms a system with the example, bare life is captured by the state and the self. Where, pray tell, is power? I have not worked this out, but it seems that the question of power (remember Agamben identifies political techniques and technologies of the self with Foucault’s later interests) is turned in Agamben to potentiality, which pervades the system rooted in exception and provides modes of resistance within the biopolitical field.

    In the introduction to H.S., Agamben sites The subject and Power. Therein, Foucualt identifies his primary interest with subjects, not power. Additionally, he describes power as acting on another’s capacity to act while leaving him/her acted upon free. Foucault identifies technologies of governance as the intersection of technologies of power and the self in Wrong-doing and Truth-telling: The Question of Avowal in Justice. Moreover, in an essay, ‘Technologies of the self,’ Foucault identifies his interests with technologies of power and technologies of the self. Why Agamben locates the interest in political techniques rather than technologies of power (Foucault’s counterpart to ToS) deserves some attention.

    It seems that the reason for this is that Agamben locates potentiality as the similar interplay within both political institutions and technologies of the self. Thus, for Agamben, to explore the intersection of the modes of capturing bare life in the bio-political order requires attending to the political institutions and the self through the question of potentiality. Here, potentiality assumes the role of power in Foucault, which augments the larger project.